Mysterious Staircase Death Investigations

Clayton Johnson’s Trial

Clayton staunchly maintained that he was innocent, as he had done ever since his arrest.

At trial, the jury heard evidence that, given the timeline, Clayton would have had no more than five minutes in which to assault his wife, clean up and stage the crime scene to look like an accident and leave the house.

He told the jury that “I had nothing to do whatsoever with the injuries caused to Jan. I loved her too much, as I love my two girls. I just don’t know how the injuries occurred. I know I didn’t… let God be my witness. I had nothing to do with it whatsoever.”

The prosecution claimed that Clayton had murdered Janice to collect on her life insurance policy and pursue a new relationship. 

The forensic pathology evidence from Dr. King and Dr. Hutton was the centerpiece of the Crown’s case. The jury members were also encouraged to believe that they could discern Clayton’s supposed murderous motives and guilty conscience from wildly speculative evidence.

After three weeks, Mr. Justice Jamie Saunders of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court delivered a jury charge that laid bare the weaknesses of the Crown’s circumstantial case. On the key issue of bloodstains, he said that if any existed, they might well have been deposited by the family dog shaking its bloodstained fur or by the ambulance attendants flailing about with their equipment.

Judge Saunders stressed the extreme risk of discovery Mr. Johnson would have faced if he had bludgeoned his wife at the exact time he was supposed to leave for work and two sets of visitors were to arrive. Judge Saunders said he found it personally telling that no wood fragments were found in Mrs. Johnson’s head wounds, despite the fact the murder weapon was supposedly a two-by-four or piece of firewood. Nor were there any bloodstains on the ceiling, he said, as one might expect in a bludgeoning.

However, it was all lost on the jury. On May 4, 1993, after 8 hours of deliberation, the jury—11 of whom were acquainted with Clayton—found him guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole eligibility for 25 years.

They recognized that if indeed Mrs. Johnson had been murdered, only her husband could have done it in the short space of time available.

After the jury returned this verdict, the trial judge asked Clayton if he had anything to say. He responded, “No, other than I didn’t do it, and I am innocent, and that’s all I can say.”

Clayton Johnson’s wife, Janice, died after a fall down the stairs in the family home in 1989. Johnson was accused of beating her to death, was convicted of murder in 1993, and was sent to prison. 

Johnson steadfastly maintained his innocence. “I had thought for sure I was going home,” Clayton recalled. “It came as a total shock to me.”

Clayton Johnson’s Incarceration

Clayton was incarcerated at Renous Penitentiary, where he would spend the next 5 years.

Clayton appealed his conviction to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal. This Court dismissed his appeal on March 8, 1994. He then applied for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which dismissed his application on February 2, 1995. Clayton spent 5 years languishing in prison for committing a murder that had never happened.

A Miscarriage of Justice

In 1995, Johnson’s cause was taken up by the Toronto-based Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. Clayton contacted Innocence Canada (formerly AIDWYC) in November 1995, and the organization took his case. With Innocence Canada’s help, Clayton submitted an application for ministerial review of his conviction under s. 690 (now s.696.1) of the Criminal Code. This application was granted, and Innocence Canada prepared a wide variety of material for the Minister of Justice, demonstrating that Clayton had been wrongly convicted.

After Mr. Johnson approached AIDWYC, Mr. Lockyer asked a Texas forensic pathologist, Dr. Linda Norton, to review the case. She concluded that forensic evidence and the sequence of events rendered a theory of murder preposterous. Dr. Norton said the central mistake Dr. King and Dr. Hutton made was assuming that the only way Mrs. Johnson could have fallen was forward while descending the stairs.

If they had considered the possibility that she lost her balance and fell backward from the top of the stairs, she said, her injuries would make sense. Dr. Norton said this scenario not only accounts for Mrs. Johnson’s head injuries but also a long, linear bruise on the back of her left calf consistent with her leg hitting the edge of a stair. If the head were the first point of contact in a fall, it makes sense that there would be little blood on the wall and third stair, Dr. Norton said.

Had Mrs. Johnson been struck and fallen to that spot, she said, there would have been copious bloodstains from a gaping head wound. According to Dr. Norton, the accidental fall scenario also explains why there were no indications of a struggle or defensive wounds on Mrs. Johnson’s hands. It also accounts for her being alive when she was found, rather than having been finished off, and the absence of either a murder weapon or blood on Mr. Johnson and his truck.

“No one can ignore the implausibility of Clayton allowing himself only 10 minutes to beat his wife to death, eliminate and/or manipulate the incriminating evidence he would almost surely leave at the scene, shower, change clothes so as not to transfer blood to his vehicle or elsewhere, and then manage to get to work at even close to a reasonable time,” Dr. Norton summarized.

The case gained widespread attention it was the subject of at least two documentaries and attracted interest from forensic pathologists from all over the world.

The Accidental Fall

Janice Johnson’s body was exhumed in 1998 for examination by pathologists, criminal forensic scientists, and anatomy and physics professors from all over North America and as far away as Northern Ireland.

They were asked to review the massive case file, and many concluded the death was the result of a freak accidental fall that resulted in massive, fatal head injuries.

He spent five years in jail before being released in 1998 after several of those experts agreed Janice’s head wounds were likely caused not by a weapon but by a freak, accidental fall.

Had his wrongful conviction not been discovered, Clayton would not have been eligible for parole until 2018.

Causes of Clayton Johnson’s Wrongful Conviction

As noted by the Innocence Canada lawyers who composed the s. 690 application for ministerial review, Clayton was wrongly convicted because of a combination of “overzealous police investigation; an overreaching prosecution; misleading expert evidence; and a climate of suspicion in which prejudice and speculation were easily substituted for reason and evidence.”

“There’s no way that I should have been convicted,” Clayton Johnson said from New Brunswick’s Renous Institution following a Halifax news conference announcing a high-profile bid to clear his name. “I know myself I didn’t do it.”

In Halifax, Johnson’s supporters presented two reports they believe clears his name. “Clayton Johnson is serving a life sentence, not for a crime that he didn’t commit, but a crime that never happened,” said lawyer James Lockyer, a member of the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted.

Tunnel Vision: Leading Cause of Wrongful Convictions

“It is the ultimate tragedy. His daughters lost a mother to a tragic accident, then they lost their father to a miscarriage of justice,” said Lockyer.

The advocacy group reviewed evidence presented at Johnson’s 1993 trial and obtained new interviews. It commissioned reports from a Texas forensic pathologist and a New York criminologist, which both concluded that Janice died after falling backward down the stairs. The Crown argued she died after being struck in the head with a piece of wood and then falling forward. Lockyer said evidence kept from the trial, combined with town gossip concerning Johnson’s marriage to a young woman a year after his wife’s death, made the case “ripe for a wrongful conviction.” Lockyer said crucial blood-spatter evidence was never given to experts who testified at the trial.

Clayton Johnson’s Acquittal

On September 21, 1998, the Minister of Justice sent Clayton’s case back to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, requiring the court to reopen it.

On February 18, 2002, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal quashed Clayton’s conviction and ordered a new trial that would include the overwhelming new evidence— collected “from 22 experts in forensic pathology, engineering, biomechanics, physics and human postural dynamics” —proving that Janice’s death was accidental. However, the Crown decided not to enter any new evidence, meaning that rather than being subjected to a lengthy, painful trial, Clayton was finally free.

Nine years and half a million dollars in legal bills later, Nova Scotia carpenter Clayton Johnson was finally cleared of murdering his wife.

It was the end of a 13-year ordeal for the former high school teacher, an ordeal that began in February 1989 when a neighbor found Johnson’s wife Janice dying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in the couple’s home.

Wrongly Convicted Man Set Free in Nova Scotia

In 2002, Clayton Johnson launched a lawsuit against the province, the RCMP, and provincial prosecutors after the chief justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court declared him innocent of the murder charge that had put him behind bars.

Crown Halts Clayton Johnson Murder Prosecution

Mr. Johnson served five years in prison following a first-degree murder conviction in 1993. In February of 2002, the Public Prosecution Service asked the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to acquit Mr. Johnson when it became clear that, based on subsequent expert testimony, there was no realistic prospect of conviction.

Clayton Johnson was able to clear his name, but as the judge who released him from prison pointed out, the time “unjustly taken from him … can never be restored.” Moreover, Clayton was, of course, separated from his young daughters, who were only 11 and 9 years old at the time of Janice’s death. The girls had, in effect, lost both their parents in rapid succession and were sent to live with their paternal grandparents while their father was in jail for their mother’s murder. As the AIDWYC lawyers put it in their application for ministerial review, these girls “lost their mother through fate; they…lost their father through a miscarriage of justice.”

His legal bills were over $500,000. Despite his ordeal, Johnson insisted he was neither bitter nor disillusioned with the justice system.

Clayton Johnson: A Free Man

Clayton Johnson Settlement

Unlike many other wrongly convicted people, Clayton Johnson was lucky enough to be successful in his subsequent lawsuit against the government, in which he argued that he was due compensation for the almost unimaginable losses he sustained. Clayton received $2.5 million. While this figure is substantial, no amount of money could ever replace the loss of five years of his life, which should have been spent with his already grief-stricken family rather than apart from them in jail.

Clayton Johnson Wrongful Murder Conviction: Tide of Suspicion (The Fifth Estate Investigative Documentary, YouTube)

In June 2004, Justice Minister Michael Baker announced that the province had reached a successful conclusion to negotiations with Clayton Johnson of Shelburne. The payment covers legal fees, other expenses, and compensation for a total amount of $2.5 million. “I’m pleased that we have been able to reach an amicable settlement,” said Mr. Baker. “This is a fair agreement.”

After his exoneration, Clayton Johnson ran a successful contracting business until his retirement. Clayton passed away on September 20, 2017.

Mysterious Accidental Staircase Deaths

Janice Johnson’s Freakish Accidental Fall—Novia Scotia, Canada


Elizabeth Ratliff’s Mysterious Staircase Death—Grafenhausen, Germany

Kathleen Peterson’s Mysterious Staircase Death: Accident or Homicide?